(photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
It seems most of Washington’s political, security and media establishments have spent the past week talking about The New York Times profile of Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
And no wonder. Rhodes is depicted in the Times as perhaps the West Wing aide closest to Obama in foreign policy thinking, and directed the administration’s public diplomacy efforts to sell the Iran nuclear deal. He appears to admit that campaign was based on the misleading premise that the agreement with Tehran was largely a reaction to a supposed moderation in the Iranian regime, when it really was more about taking an obstacle off the table impeding the administration’s desire to ”disengage” from the region’s problems.
But much of the outrage over the piece seems less about its substance than the tenor of Rhodes remarks and the personality that emerges behind them. This 38-year-old with virtually no record in real foreign policy-making – or any substantial foreign experience at all – comes off as arrogantly dismissive of more veteran foreign policy hands, dissing the likes of Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton as belonging to an establishment “Blob” of hackneyed, outdated thinking.
He is equally contemptuous of the media, describing the average journalists he talks to as “27-year-olds” with meager reporting experience who “literally know nothing.” Incredibly, he even disses some of the most high-profile national security journalists who have been notably sympathetic to the Obama administration, including The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen, calling them an “echo chamber” who could be spoon-fed the White House policy line.
I don’t know Ben Rhodes and have no idea how he is in real life, but in this article written with his apparent full cooperation, he comes off as – and there’s no better word for it – a real putz.
And that’s without the piece even mentioning the fact that Rhodes is widely assumed in both Washington and Jerusalem to be the White House official who described Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “chickensh*t” in a 2014 piece by Goldberg.
Re Goldberg: “The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars,” the official said, expanding the definition of what a chickensh*t Israeli prime minister looks like. “The bad thing about him is that he won’t do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or the Sunni Arab states... He’s got no guts.”
While describing a decorated ex-commando fighter as a gutless chicken in any context is bad enough, what’s really disturbing about that quote is its delusional quality. It is one thing to slam Netanyahu for being cautious or timid on the peacemaking front, and entirely another to connect this with a comprehensive cowardice so deep to believe he’s afraid of taking major military action.
Even disregarding the several operations against Hamas in the Gaza Strip that Netanyahu has undertaken, it is a serious misreading of the prime minister to believe his threats of a strike against the Iran nuclear program have been entirely a bluff.
But don’t take my word on that. In a final, posthumous interview broadcast last week on Channel 2, the late former Mossad head Meir Dagan gave his most explicit confirmation yet that it was largely the firm resistance from him and other security chiefs that dissuaded Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak from attacking Iran back around 2010.
Dagan also rightly slammed Netanyahu for mishandling relations with the Obama administration; maintaining a good working relationship with the White House, no matter who sits in the Oval Office, has to be a priority for any Israeli prime minister.
Yet the train wreck that has been the Netanyahu- Obama relationship can’t be laid at the feet of just one of those men, and the Rhodes profile presents a good case of why that’s so.
“An America that slanders the democratically elected leader of its ally is one that is respected neither by its friends nor its enemies,’’ former ambassador to the US Michael Oren wrote in his memoir Ally.
And if Rhodes wasn’t the originator of the “chickensh* t” quote, it’s an even more disturbing indication of wider West Wing putziness that infected the Obama administration’s relationship with Netanyahu.
And that’s too bad, especially for those who believe the US does have a positive role to play in helping advance the peace process.
While I’m not among those who believe Netanyahu is ready to reach anything close to a final-status deal with the Palestinians – especially with its current Abbas-led moribund leadership – he has shown in the past more flexibility than many of his critics suggest in taking steps to move into that direction.
Somehow, through a far more deft combination of tough love and pressure than anything this US administration has demonstrated, Bill Clinton got Netanyahu in 1997 to withdraw Israeli troops from most of Hebron, a step even Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres had hesitated to take. The prime minister certainly gave the Obama White House its own opportunities on the peace front, agreeing to an unprecedented settlements freeze and the freeing of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in order to renew negotiations on two occasions.
Yet the Obama administration badly bungled its chances to make the most of both these opportunities.
If the like of Ben Rhodes was a major voice in the managing of its foreign policy, it’s not surprising why.
After all, as the saying goes, if you start with the premise that what you’re dealing with is chickensh* t, than you won’t be making chicken salad. Not in Jerusalem, and not, alas, in the White House as well.Calev Ben-David is the political/diplomatic correspondent for IBA English TV News.
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